At first glance Noah Kahan seems to fit seamlessly into the tradition of artists such as James Blunt, James Bay, and all the other James’ who make up Spotify playlists like “Coffeeshop Feels” and “Cozy Autumn Leaves.” While I’m an avid listener of the James’ and admittedly have about four variations of playlists devoted to them, Noah Kahan sets himself apart. Blending acoustic guitar and melodic pop, his lyrics are raw and honest without taking himself too seriously. Unafraid of drawing on his own anxiety and insecurities, he manages to encapsulate the fears and doubts most people in their teens and early twenties can relate to. Releasing his debut album, Busyhead, in 2019 and an EP, Cape Elizabeth, in 2020, my love for Noah Kahan has grown over the last two years into something akin to a personal brand. So, in honor of him teasing the release of his next album, I thought I’d write a love letter to my favorite songs on Busyhead.
The first track on Busyhead begins with the upbeat picking on an acoustic guitar that characterizes most of his music. Quickly growing into a more energetic chorus, he sings “and I wonder why I tear myself down to be built back up again… holes in my false confidence.” While not my favorite song on the album, the fast tempo keeps the lyrics from coming off as self-pitying. Beginning the album with a forceful exploration into his own insecurities and doubts, he sets the tone for the rest of Busyhead as a journey through the inner workings of his mind.
“Mess” is a reflection on that feeling of not being good enough, of realizing that the person that you thought you were isn’t necessarily how other people see you. He sings “I’ll move back home for ever and I’ll feed the dogs and put all my pieces back together… I’m a mess.” While I love a dramatic ballad, Kahan’s ability to sing about mundane tasks like paying off his debts and feeding the dog in a heartfelt and genuine way is where his music really resonates. And he reflects too on his own experience as an artist, writing “I called my old friends, but they only ever ask me how tour is… I guess the stage was my mask, I forgot the way I looked before I wore it.” His vulnerability is his musical identity, drawing on his own experiences in a way that rarely feels dramatized or exaggerated.
Busyhead’s title track is a tribute to his own experience with anxiety. Slower than some of the other songs on the album, the song explores what it’s like to get lost inside the spiral of your own mind. The chorus, “you’re all alone inside your busy head,” is blunt and honest and perfectly encapsulates the album.
At this point in writing I’m starting to realize why my friends tell me I only listen to sad music. “Why do you try to save me? This fate is well deserved. I only make things worse.” If it weren’t for the beautiful melody of this song, I’d say it crosses the line into painfully self deprecating. One of my favorites.
Maybe because it’s called “Tidal,” but I always associate this song as one of the beachier, happier songs on the album (“beachy” might be a stretch for a man whose entire brand is built around living in the woods in Vermont). 10/10 on the vocals here.
Ah, Carlos’ Song. One of my best friends played me this song two summers ago and I wholly credit that moment with my renewed love for Noah Kahan. The last song on Busyhead and number one on my Spotify wrapped this year (by an embarrassing amount), Carlos’ Song is beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful (again, my sincere apologies to all of the people I’ve made listen to this song an absurd number of times). Written about a high school friend who passed away, the song is powerfully organic and raw. Although drawing on his grief, the song manages to walk a fine line of invoking an intense nostalgia while remaining upbeat. If you’ve managed to avoid me forcing you to listen to this song, please do yourself a favor and listen to it now.